Monday, Nov. 5, 2007 | A devil, a princess and Spiderman swarm around Margie Lincoln, small arms clamoring to hug her on her last day as principal at Johnson Elementary. Pirates, fairies, Cinderella and a penguin crowd behind them; a bashful three-foot genie in gold lame lingers at the door, waiting her turn.

“Bye bye, precious,” Lincoln coos, leaning over the costumed crowd. “You all be safe for Halloween. Don’t worry — I’ll be back.”

In Emerald Hills, parents and teachers hope it’s true. In her five years as principal, Lincoln has steered Johnson away from state takeover, cooled fever-pitch frustrations, and beautified the then-dowdy, 40-year-old school. She’s so well-known in San Diego, her husband Samuel Washington complains, that he’s now called Mr. Lincoln.

The next day, she’s already back in the office, fruitlessly typing her password into the school computers. Just one day after Lincoln retired from a 38-year career in San Diego schools, the log-in has been blocked. At her retirement dinner the same night, she jokingly berates Associate Superintendent Dorothy Harper for the block, then adds, through the crowd’s laughter, “I’m serious as a heart attack.” Her friends and family roar. “No, I’m really serious!”

Five years ago, Johnson Elementary was like “a disturbed family,” a job that few wanted, Lincoln recalls. When Lincoln weighed taking the job, friends whispered “Are you sure you want to do that?” For years, the mostly black elementary school had fallen short of testing goals. If Johnson missed the mark again, it would be subject to the heavy hand of the state: takeover or reorganization. Teachers were fleeing, and substitutes dodged jobs at Johnson.

And Johnson had already made headlines that year, when aggravated parents staged a three-day walkout from the school. More than 100 kids skipped their Johnson classes and gathered in a nearby church for lessons.

“News people were out there — it was something else,” says Delores Reed, an after-school educator whose daughter, nieces and nephews have attended Johnson. “That sent a message.”

Chanting parents flooded the sidewalk outside the school, demanding textbooks, consistent teachers and a return to “Direct Instruction,” a phonics-based reading program that had been traded out under then-Superintendent Alan Bersin’s “Blueprint for Success.”

“Johnson was always about Direct Instruction,” says trustee Mitz Lee, who was president of the Alliance for Quality Education when the walkout happened. “Then came the Blueprint, slowly removing that. People noticed the test scores, and when they saw it being watered down, they fought.”

Rabble-rousing wasn’t foreign to Emerald Hills, then a mostly-black enclave that reared generations of Johnson students. Here, the Urban League once tried to run Johnson as a charter school; here, firebrand seniors like Lillie Pollard, former president of the Emerald Hills Town Council, wear T-shirts emblazoned with Malcolm X and dish about local issues.

“That community had always been active and angry at the district for not doing enough for their children,” says Tom Mitchell, the district’s former director of parent and community engagement, who weathered parents’ wrath during the Johnson firestorm. “It’s a good thing, at least for me, to have parents who are angry — at least they care.”

At Lincoln’s farewell dinner, grandmother Dorothy Martin jokes, “You came in a little apprehensive. You heard about the radical parents at Johnson!”

Now, Lincoln smiles, her enigmatic, quiet smile, and calls that furor “passion.”

“One of the first things I wanted to do was to hear,” she says. “To listen. Listen to the passion they had, and tap into it.”

“You’re not an island”

Ask Lincoln how she did it — how she wrenched a lagging school out of Program Improvement and bolstered test scores 20 percent in just five years — and she makes it sound simple: Listening to teachers and parents, and focusing on kids.

But as she walks the Johnson campus, Lincoln drops details of specific programs. Under her watch, Johnson opened an on-campus preschool to prepare every kid for kindergarten; she ferreted out grants from NASA and the U.S. Department of Education, cut office jobs, and bounced any costs she could to the district, leaving more money for the school.

“Anything I could get from anyone else, that was fine,” Lincoln says.

Bulky, beige PC computers were shelved for sleek, snow-white iMacs. Even the aging campus got a touch-up. Lincoln snapped up district dollars to replace a barren “mound of dirt” with landscaped yards, and repainted the space-themed campus’ astronaut murals. Little things were important to her: Lincoln touted educational charts such as vocabulary lists and grammatical reminders posted at kids’ eye level to help fill the absence left by teachers’ aides, who were plucked from San Diego classrooms years ago.

“It was a blessing to see Ms. Lincoln begin to work,” says Gloria Parsons, who works as the library assistant at Johnson. One grandson recently graduated from Johnson, and the second is on his way. “I knew we could do it.”

Meanwhile teachers, once feuding over Bersin’s “Blueprint,” got a room of their own: the Professional Development center where teachers meet by grade level to trade ideas and talk over problems. First-grade teachers Janice Anderson and Joyce Tartt sit with new principal Charlie Smith, hashing out the issues. They talk about specific kids and their challenges. Tartt says she knows Anderson’s students, and Anderson knows hers.

And Lincoln knows them, too. As principal, she compiled thick binders of notes about classroom teaching, and frequently dropped in on her teachers to assess their work. It’s the kind of oversight that teachers often loath. Yet Lincoln did it, and kept their respect.

“We pushed really hard for this,” Anderson says, gesturing around the center. Now, professional development for teachers “isn’t out in the ozone. It’s tangible. You know you’re not an island.”

When asked if this kind of individual focus is typical — teachers meeting to discuss little Kara, Jesus or Byron — Lincoln smiles again.

“It should be,” she says. “What if every child had an individual education plan?” Such plans are created for special education students. “We should know our kids that well.”

Challenges remain for Johnson

Coworkers call Lincoln a workaholic, citing the night she slept under her desk, the dinners she skipped, and the reputation she developed for “sucking the life” out of her teachers in late-night meetings.

“She is the hardest worker I’ve ever seen,” says Alena Lintz, who worked more than nine years for Lincoln as her secretary. “She works nights and weekends and holidays, and I know, because when I came back to work on Monday there would be a fat folder of work for me!”

Cheryl Johnson-Walls, a resource teacher at the district’s Office of Language Acquisition who used to work at Johnson, remembers the warnings she got before Lincoln arrived at Johnson. She and Kim Barnes, a 5th and 6th grade Johnson teacher, used to joke, “Alert, alert, Mama’s coming down the hall!” before Lincoln stopped in their classes.

“For all the sucking-the-life she did out of me,” Johnson-Walls says, “I really miss her!”

As Lincoln set to work, test scores crept higher and higher. Johnson gained 127 points on the statewide Academic Performance Index in five years, a nearly 20 percent increase. Its black students scored 790 on the test last year, just shy of the statewide target of 800. When the school pulled out of failing status, Johnson staff held a party on campus, and festooned the school with balloons.

“It was like someone lifted a weight off our shoulders,” Smith says.

Again, Lincoln smiles, then speaks. “It was just wonderful.”

But Johnson’s story isn’t over. As Emerald Hills transforms into a multiethnic mix of African-Americans, Latinos and Somalis, the needs of English-language learners loom larger at Johnson. Latino students haven’t scored as highly as black students at Johnson: In 2006, Johnson’s Latino students scored 715 on the API, lower than low-income Johnson students, who scored 756. Teachers are pushing to prod scores past 800.

And enrollment is dropping, despite Johnson’s attraction as a space-themed magnet school. In 2001, more than 600 students filled Johnson’s classrooms. In 2006, only 372 remained. The drop mirrors a district-wide trend: San Diego’s elementary school enrollment plunged from about 73,000 to 59,000 during the same years. Booming rents that push parents out of San Diego and the district have been blamed for the pattern, and Lincoln says Emerald Hills is no exception.

Budgets are tied to enrollment, and have dropped along with student numbers.

Those challenges — and the scores of kids who know her by name — make it even harder for Lincoln to pull away, she says. At her retirement party, her son Antwon Lincoln jokingly labels the coworkers and parents who implore her to stay “the enemy.”

“I hate to see her go, and they just sprung it on us,” says J.L. Cunningham. Two of her grandchildren attend Johnson, and a third has graduated from the school. Hours before sundown on Halloween, she totes her granddaughter’s “Midnight Fairy” costume home in a shopping bag from the school. “She can go rest, and then we want her back.”

As Lincoln strides quietly across the pavement Nov. 1, surprised kids shout and wave.

“I thought you were leaving!” one girl exclaims, and jumps down from the jungle gym to hug her.

Lincoln smiles, and pats her shoulder.

“See?” she says. “I told you I was coming back.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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